The Hidden Costs of Remote Learning

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Hazen Union’s efforts to make sure no students are left behind in terms of technology as schools began remote learning are now formally known as “the Connectivity Program.” While the Connectivity Program aims to address the technical issues of remote learning, Hazen Union Principal Perrigo said there are other, more complex issues continuing to impact students during the pandemic.

Provisions for remote learning were already in place prior to school closings last March, but according to some teachers, the switch to remote learning did not go as well as hoped. 

In part, this is because in-person schooling provides more than an education; it also affords students access to meals, social engagement and mental health support.

According to a report by consultancy McKinsey & Company, “the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on families, leaving many children in precarious situations.” The report cites a report from Feeding America that one in four children is at risk of hunger during the pandemic. “The number of children who are housing-insecure has risen as families struggle to pay rent,” the report said. “Parental supervision and support may be more difficult in families in which both parents need to work outside the home.”

Describing the impact of the situation as “huge,” Perrigo said, “I am more worried about the impact on mental health than I am on lost academics.” He said “in a number of cases” students were doing well but have become “really, really hard to engage” since the schools closed. “And these are not necessarily kids who don’t have Internet service,” he said. “It’s just they can’t make this work for them.”

Hazen Union’s crisis team meets weekly to brainstorm strategies to better support students, he said. But despite the group’s efforts to provide additional resources, “there are kids who have literally fallen through the cracks in terms of their just being around.”

Perrigo predicts students will continue to struggle with mental health issues “for a long time to come” because of losing access to essential activities and interactions. “Imagine you’re an adolescent at your most formative stages of life and you feel like your world has just been taken out from underneath you,” he said. “A lot of the normal things that you would have in your life, your ability to be with your friends, your ability to participate in musical activities, athletics, all the kinds of things that are so important for kids in their social lives have been turned upside down.” He said the effects of the situation have taken a “tremendous toll” that may not be visible “for some time to come.”

Hazen’s basketball teams saw big successes last year, but for many months school sports programs have been on hold. The state announced sports can resume February 12, but Perrigo said there is no guarantee the programs will proceed without further interruptions and closures due to changes in the pandemic. “It’s just been a wash this year,” he said.

The McKinsey report states that “there are no rigorous studies on the impact of hybrid models — not just on learning, but also on students’ emotional and mental health, as well as on limiting disease spread. This makes it tough for schools to design effective learning strategies and makes it difficult for researchers to predict the impact of ongoing disruptions.”

The report said learning adaptations implemented by schools likely averted a worst-case scenario, where months of learning were lost, but what happens next depends on the efficacy and durability of the vaccine rollout and the timeline of the virus. In a worst-case scenario, the study estimated five to nine months of lost learning for white students and ten months for Black students. 

“And this could be just the beginning — we also know from studies of natural disasters, such as the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, that learning losses are likely to compound over time,” the report said. “Schools can take action right now to minimize further damage and repair what’s already been done.”

The report recommended taking steps to eliminate the digital divide, reaching out to families individually, doubling down on feedback loops of instruction, learning, and assessment, and “[holding] everyone accountable while celebrating successes.”

The McKinsey report also recommended schools take “a more holistic view of their role in a student’s life,” by reimagining “elements of curriculum, teaching, technology, and supporting infrastructure in ways that go beyond the norm.”

Hazen Union was taking those steps before the pandemic but has accelerated its efforts. Despite the school’s best efforts to address losses caused by COVID-19, Perrigo remains concerned about potential long-term effects on his students’ overall development.

“To have [that time] taken out of your adolescence at your formative stage, you’re not going to get that back,” Perrigo said. “And I don’t know what that’s going to mean for kids.”